Book Criticism: The Great Migration?

I’ve been thinking about book reviews and criticism. Back in May I was in the audience for a panel held during Book Expo of America (BEA) called The Crisis In Reviewing, Disappearing Space and Disappearing Pay.  Whenever a panel is listed at a conference or festival I’m attending on this general topic I always make an effort to sit in… because I love books, I love book criticism and I love panels. But, as a whole, these tend to be rather depressing affairs which focus on the past and bemoan the present.

Regardless of the name they almost always touch upon the same key points:

  • The newspapers which traditionally ran book reviews no longer have book sections due to lack of public interest, advertising, etc.
  • Many of the book review outlets which still exist, particularly those that exist online, do not pay. Or pay very little.
  • The general reading public sees book critics and reviewers as gatekeepers – an over-intellectual (and possibly out-of-touch) elite.
  • Reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and on blogs (though blogging, itself, is considered in decline) have replaced/assumed the role of traditional book reviews.

Personally, I think time would be better spent looking towards the future.  And with that in mind Fran Bigman and I have started a series on the National Book Critics Circle website called The Craft of Criticism. Because I believe that book criticism is a very niche area of interest, one I like to equate to people who buy/collect vinyl records. There is still a demand, still an interest, but perhaps not as large an audience as – say – 20 years ago. And, yes, the internet changed everything. As did streaming. But I don’t believe that the internet was an extinction level event for readers and reviewers. And if I am correct about that, then the question we need to be asking (and the more exciting topic of conversation) is how will the form adapt and evolve going forward?

We already have some of the answers. Community building is happening online at sites like Goodreads, Litsy, Book Riot and The Washington Post’s Book Party. And offline, in the form of book clubs, author readings and festivals. Libraries and independent bookstores still play a huge role. In-depth criticism and reviews, formerly the purview of newspapers, still exists at online magazines like 3:AM Magazine, Asymptote, Necessary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and The Millions. There are also more than a few print journals and sections that have survived (and thrived) in this brave new world – The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, The Paris Review, Tin House, The Sewanee Review, Book Forum, TLS, A Public Space, The LA Times Book Review and The Wall Street Journal book section. I want to stress that these are incomplete lists. And I haven’t even mentioned book blogs, vlogs, podcasts and Instagram (#bookstagram) – all fascinating and full of possibilities for the future and a subject for another post.

Good book criticism today isn’t a pronouncement, but the opening line of a conversation. The goal remains to place literature in a cultural context, but the way of doing that has changed drastically. There are enormous benefits to this. The rise of the book community (versus the academic community) as a critical force has occurred in tandem with demands for diversity in adult and children’s fiction. Self-published romance novels on Amazon have shown that there is a market for romance novels featuring characters of color, LGBTQ romance and polyamorous relationships. Ask yourself, would the VIDA count and the demand for gender parity have been possible without the connective tissue of the internet? And I sincerely believe that the increased attention to translated literature is due to, not the traditional media outlets but, the dedication of a relatively small group of independent publishers and bloggers. One of the most interesting new literary prizes launched this year – The Staunch Prize for thrillers written and plotted without any physical violence against women – and I don’t think it would have been possible if the guards were still fixedly positioned on either side of the gates (in fact, the Guardian article and follow-up articles announcing the prize contain far more negative responses than positive from critics and authors).

As a rule, it is no longer realistic to make enough money to live on by reviewing books (of course there are always exceptions to the rule), but that is not the same thing as the end of book criticism. Rather than the extinction level event I mentioned earlier, I like to think that we are in the midst of a great migration.

What do you think? I’d love to know.

7 thoughts on “Book Criticism: The Great Migration?

  1. Well, I’m intrigued to see that blogging is in decline. I understand why this is said, some well-loved LitFic bloggers have thrown in the towel, sometimes because life just got in the way or there were better things to do. I am thinking of a couple of young women who had wonderful blogs but they had children and then, that understandably was that. But I am thinking also that some were hoping to monetise the blog to get an income from it, and I don’t know of any successful ones. The ones I’ve seen that are plastered in ads, or merely talk about books they haven’t read that are ‘coming soon’, I stopped reading a long time ago.
    But Kim at Reading Matters celebrated her 10 years a while ago, I had mine last month, and Sue at Whispering Gums has hers next year. Stu at Winston’s Dad seems to have been going forever too. Others that I read look destined for a long future too, because of the quality of the reviewing they do. All of us, of course, are older though not necessarily retired, and we regard what we do as a kind of voluntary work, and if the comments I had on my 10 year anniversary post are any guide, what we do to promote authors and publishing is being acknowledged and appreciated.
    That our little niche seems to be thriving may also have something to do with the decline in LitFic and the need to support each other, because if we did not read and talk about the kind of books we love, who would?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lisa! I probably should have qualified that. You’re absolutely right that there’s still a thriving, wonderful and vocal lit blogging community, but I have read in some places ( and been told by some bloggers I’ve spoken to) that blogging hit its peak right around 2009. What they’re basing that on I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it’s the ability to monetize, like you suggest. Or actual volume of traffic and comments coming in to the sites. Or maybe they mean it’s not as “buzzy” as it once was. But I agree completely that our little niche still seems to be thriving… and I think that’s because of the quality of the content. None of the blogs you named (and I include yours and mine among them) have sacrificed intelligent and honest writing about books for listicles, manufactured drama or any of the other gimmicks people resort to in order to drive traffic.

      And, you made me realize – though I am not as prolific or as dedicated as you, Stu and Kim– this little blog had its 10 year anniversary back in April without my even noticing!

      Thanks, as always, for commenting & keeping me honest! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well happy blogoversary to you too!
    Yeah, I also wonder on what they’re basing that judgement about ‘peak’…. I don’t know how anyone would know about my volume of traffic or stats except for me and for WordPress, to make a judgement about it.
    I do know this: a publisher, (I won’t say which one), quite recently asked me for some ‘traffic stats’ which I shared with her on a confidential basis, and in the course of the conversation, she said that they would be handy when asked to justify sending out review copies to bloggers. Obviously bloggers only get review copies when the bean counters can see a relationship between reviews and sales, and her publisher was questioning the value of the freebies that seem to be everywhere these days. If, of the people who would normally buy a book, too many of them are receiving freebies without there being a spike in sales to offset it, then that’s a problem for the marketing department, right?
    But IMO this is where niche comes in. There is a difference between popular commercial fiction and LitFic, and the marketing approach has to be different. For readers of LitFic an enticing review is probably a more effective generator or sales than a gushing endorsement of the latest genre fiction release at Amazon. But it’s harder for the reader of LitFic to find those reviews because by definition the author’s output is less frequent, and what’s new and interesting still has to make it past some kind of gatekeeper in order for anyone to know about it. This is even more crucial anywhere outside the big behemoths of the US and the UK. Australian readers of LitFic are not going to find reviews in the NYRB review of books, not until the author is well-known outside the US, and that might well be the same for Canadian Lit, QuebecLit, Indian Lit and any of the African countries publishing in English. We *rely* on our favourite bloggers to tell us about those books because that info isn’t anywhere else, and publishers know it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Tara. I wanted to come back and comment here but I was finishing a review for Music & Literature—my first for them, but their reviews are great (don’t know how mine will fare). I find that sites I used to review for that paid a decent stipend no longer exist. But, as an editor for one of those journals that cannot pay (any of us involved) I rarely receive a pitch or submission from someone who is bothered by that. Lately there have been a few young MFA grads (I can always recognize the type), but they generally come back when their bubbles are burst. At 3:AM, the trade off is that we run no ads and have no paywall. I suppose it’s great to have a piece in the LRB, but I’m not going to pay over $100 a year to read it online and have unread paper copies pile up in the corner. I’ve stopped most journal subscriptions because I never open them (or they annoy me with constant renewal requests). If you want your work read and want to build a solid CV, your writing has to be accessible. You still own all the rights, you can link it share it, do what you want. The online journal, especially one as long standing as 3:AM, is already (or someone is) spending a pretty penny to secure the domain, archive and back up and maintain the site that makes your work available. It’s not exploitation, it’s collaboration—especially with the non-mainstream, small press, translated etc works that critics like you and I favour.

    Having said all that, I find review writing to be much more difficult than many people realize. Even a shorter blog review will take me at least 4-6 hours to write. Longer critical reviews take days. I have to be really invested in the book/author to the longer pieces on. At 3:AM, Tristan and I do not seek to place reviews despite the number of requests we get from publishers (or from other editors who are doing a friend a favour). We feel that the best reviews are the ones the writer has felt inspired to write—where they have something to say about a particular book. I go through phases of wanting to write, or sometimes I hit a book that I know I want to explore at depth, but most of the time I’m quite satisfied to edit and blog. I believe that idiosyncratic bloggers—those with particular interests and tastes— are critical to the book conversation. Most are likely to end up with some new releases or review copies, but blogging allows you to read from publisher backlists, challenge yourself (ie Women in Translation, German or Spanish lit), or read nothing but Tolstoy for a year if you wish. If you combine it with engagement on twitter or goodreads or elsewhere, I think there’s an audience for everything. The challenge is keeping up with it all.

    But most of all, you have to do it for yourself. To become a better reader and writer. Because you enjoy it. I actually can’t imagine being a mainstream or “old fashioned” book critic and having to read books that were assigned to me, to forever be stuck with new releases and have to read each book with an eye to what you might write. Sometimes it’s nice to read without a pencil in hand. Just because.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Joe – Thank you for the comment. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you and Lisa have written – and I agree with most, if not all, of the points you’ve both made. (Especially your point that book reviews and blog posts are much more time consuming then most people realize – at least, they’ve always been for me! It’s reassuring to hear that I’m not entirely alone in that… I always get the sense from some writers, particularly bloggers, that they’re able to jot something brilliant off in the space of half an hour while I’m only talented enough to plod along slow and steady).

      One thing that’s come out of these interviews for me is the focus on community building. Which is something I think bloggers understood from the start, and really pioneered. And as I look back over ten years of blogging (thanks, Lisa, for reminding me of my age! 🙂 ), I think that’s something I, personally, overlooked early on. While I think I was a part of the community, I never tried to make the blog a hub in it (if that makes sense). Which is why it makes me sad when I read that someone like Stu, who has been so successful at building a readership and making people feel welcome on his site, talk about fatigue. Because the fatigue is a very real thing, especially when you hit a plateau.

      So, two more things (sorry! this could easily be a WHOLE other post). 1. Hypothetically, because someone reminded me recently that publishing is still a business that needs to generate some revenue (at least enough to support itself – no need to get greedy… I agree that $100 a year is a bit steep). What would you think if these online sites with their paywalls treated the money you paid not as a subscription fee but as membership dues? And that these dues allowed you access to a quasi-exclusive club? One with forums, live streams, podcasts, special content and offers, meet-ups and reviews only available to members. Do you see that as a viable model for the future?

      and 2. A quick endorsement/defense of assigning books to reviewers. I am actually in favor of it. It requires research on the part of the person handing out the assignments, but I find that I like being exposed to books I might otherwise avoid. These kinds of assignments force me to open up and consider work which, while not to my personal taste, may be appealing to someone else. And to argue why I agree and disagree. Lately I’ve been finding the reviews I write about books I’m not necessary blown away by, but still am forced to look for merit in, the most interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have to agree with Lisa in that exclusivity does not appeal. Costs will exclude people—students, struggling writers, people like myself who are unable to work full-time. Online journals are typically international ventures and meet ups, if or when they occur, still tend to occur in London, New York, Sydney, and other major centres. They are not likely to come to my hometown. Forums, live-streams, podcasts etc all cost money to produce (especially again to archive) and then there is the time commitment. Most sites have an owner who takes on expenses privately or some affiliation with an institution for the basics. Editors are typically volunteer, even if there is a modest pay to writers. And then, who manages the money, where are they located, etc? At 3:AM we are entirely autonomous, as editors we accept material, edit, copyedit, proofread, format and upload. A single essay or review can take between 2-3 hours if I’m lucky and, at worst case, upwards of 40 or more. It’s taken me a while to learn to make better assessments about what I accept and the timelines I give contributors. The backstory, what you don’t see, is the connections I make, the fascinating array of writers I engage with and the unexpected and interesting essays I receive and obscure books I’m exposed to. That is my pay. What I would like to do is find a way to freelance some editing services and focus more on longer nonfiction pieces for publication that are more likely to appeal to a paying market.

        I find that between blogging and twitter, there is a viable community for book discussion and contact. Especially for those of us who rarely ever have a chance to see the type of literature/writers we read come to readers’ festivals, bookstores etc in our own cities. In a city of over one million with two excellent indie bookshops, I have no friends who read like I do—and very few who read anything at all! Blogging and writing reviews has afforded me a chance to travel and meet up with like-minded souls (sometimes even with a financial incentive). In the past four years I’ve been to South Africa, Australia, India, and San Francisco. Heck, I even spent a totally brilliant day with Lisa in Melbourne!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ll respond to your question to Joe…
    I am not remotely interested in forums, live streams, podcasts, special content and offers, or meet-ups. Those, IMO, are for people who would rather listen and talk than read.
    More importantly, I am not interested in a closed community either. So many lovely people have stumbled on my blog and I onto theirs, to substitute a gated community exclusive to those with money seems like a poor alternative.

    Liked by 2 people

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